Design for the environmental emergency: Plastic chairs and the transition to low-carbon product design

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Analysing the intersection between plastics, environmentally-conscious design, and consumption through a focussed study of plastic chairs, this dissertation casts new light on best practice for sustainable furniture design. Plastic chairs are ubiquitous but remain objects of constant innovation and experimentation by designers. With reference to historical and contemporary developments, I examine the shifting cultural attitudes to plastics. Product designers and furniture manufacturers are responding to mounting environmental concerns by experimenting with renewable carbon plastics (recycled plastic and bioplastics). My interviews with international contemporary designers and representatives from industry are critically evaluated, alongside case studies of recent plastic chairs made using renewable carbon plastics. Findings from that research led me to develop a quantitative eco-audit tool to enable a comparison of these designs and demonstrate that the best outcomes for sustainable design incorporate existing materials (recycled plastics) and traditional moulding technologies. This tool is presented in this dissertation as both a structural part of the research methodology, and as an output for the instrumentalisation of the study’s findings. Much research has been undertaken on sustainable design and there have been many calls for design-led societal change. But few studies have focused on how such change actually manifests, or identified the areas of research required to bring about transformation. In other words, what does it really take to shift design and manufacturing practices, at scale, across complex supply chains? The multi-level perspective (MLP) transition framework is used to identify strategies to scale-up the use of renewable carbon plastics in design. Providing a methodology for designers to embrace a more sustainable approach to the design of plastic products, this dissertation is also a call to arms for urgent action to mitigate the most devastating impacts of the environmental emergency.
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